Saturday, 20 June 2009

Cucumber Salad

This is delicious with fish and brown rice.

Half an organic cucumber

A dessertspoon full of organic sesame seeds

Umeboshi vinegar (Clearspring make one called Ume Plum Seasoning)

Mixed salad seaweed (Clearspring, again, do a packet called Sea Vegetable Salad that has three different seaweeds in it: wakame; agar and aka tsunomata. It’s quite expensive but you only need a pinch for this salad)

Wash the cucumber and stripe it with a peeler. Slice it very thinly (use a mandolin if you’ve got one) and spread it out in a wide-ish bowl. Sprinkle the cucumber with vinegar and leave it to marinate.

Put a large pinch of seaweed into cold water to soak for 10 minutes.

Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over a low flame, keep shaking and stirring them so they don’t burn.

Drain the seaweed and mix it in with the cucumber.

Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on the top.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Road Less Travelled

At Paddington station I watch the Heathrow Express recede into the distance. I stand on the platform until the train is no longer visible. I continue to stare westward along empty tracks.

Nick has departed on his journey home to Sydney. I turn and take my first steps alone toward a very different journey that lies ahead of me.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Going Home

Mr Hadjiminas doesn’t have any days off. He’s in the hospital every morning. But on the weekends he visits wearing casual consultant attire: an open necked shirt; chinos and, you guessed it, boating shoes.

Today I am going home. It feels disconcerting. After a week, the hospital feels like home. And home feels like a scary place where I will have to cope with doing the laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping and bathing. To be honest, I only just about manage those chores at the best of times.

Nick is still in London, so I’m going home with him. And that seems disconcerting too. Only four days ago Nick dumped me out of the blue for no good reason whatsoever. I know it was some kind of emotional short-circuit that caused him to freak out. But I don’t know that he won’t do it again. I don’t feel that I can completely rely on him the way I did a week ago. So I’m feeling somewhat ambivalent about going home.

Nevertheless, I’ve been in hospital long enough. There comes a point when one begins to pace one’s room like a caged animal. I’ve reached that point.

Mr H removes the chest drains with the assistance of nurse Tiziana. I keep my eyes firmly averted. We don’t want anymore fainting. “The wound will fill up with fluid now,” Mr Hadjiminas tells me, “you will have to come in to have it drained once a week.” Nurse Tiziana gives me a strong painkiller. I gratefully accept.

Every day brings its own opportunity to try some small thing that takes me forward in my recovery. This morning I will have a proper bath, rather than a sponge wash, for the first time. I turn on the taps and lay out my clothes: the silver sparkly top and black leggings.

Nick won’t be here to collect me until lunchtime, so I slowly begin to pack up the room. I’m astonished at what an accumulation of stuff one can acquire in just a few days. There are cards; an assortment of vases; the crazy clock; an array of Tupperware containers; my laptop; clothes; boxes of teabags, snacks, biscuits and so on. The painkiller has done its work. I happily fold things into perfect squares, making neat little piles whilst I hum away to myself. Some time later I remember to check on the bath. The bathroom is ankle deep in water.

I press the nurse call buzzer. Nurse Sarah pops in. Nursing can sometimes be a thankless profession so I hope that it makes Sarah feel good to know how just much I, for one, appreciate her plumbing skills.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Dressing For Chest Drains

After the success of my corridor walk yesterday afternoon, Nick was keen to egg me on to higher achievements. He suggested that we aim to go out of the hospital today. I was excited by the idea. “We could walk down to the Providores and have tea,” I exclaimed.

“Only, what am I going to wear?” It’s interesting how quickly one falls out of the habit of getting dressed. Whether on holiday or in hospital I’m always quite happy to wear the minimum required. For the past few days I’ve been dressed only in my compression bra and a pair of stretch jersey shorts.

The physiotherapist came to see me a couple of days ago. She gave me a leaflet entitled Exercises After Breast Surgery. She told me that many women end up with a very restricted range of shoulder movement because they do not do their exercises after breast surgery. It was interesting to see that most of the illustrations in the leaflet were of much older women. It brought home to me the fact that being diagnosed with breast cancer before the menopause is still relatively rare. More than 80% of breast cancers occur in women over fifty. The leaflet illustrated five different breast surgery survivors doing their exercises: an elderly white lady, probably in her eighties, with long hair; another white lady in her eighties, with short hair; a lady of African origin, probably in her seventies, with short hair; a younger white lady, probably in her late forties, with shoulder length hair and, finally, a middle-aged man with a beard. I was impressed by the thorough inclusiveness of the leaflet designers.

Since the physio’s visit I’ve been assiduously doing my exercises. They’re quite simple, for example: brushing my hair, drying my back with a towel or raising and lowering my elbows to shoulder height. But I don’t think I could put anything on over my head. I will need an outfit that is comfortable and easy to don, that covers up the bandages and the compression bra.

I instructed Nick to bring a pair of black leggings and a voluminous white pirate shirt that buttons down the front.

Mr Hadjiminas visits every morning, always wearing a tailored suit. This morning he expresses great satisfaction with my progress, going so far as to call me his “star patient.” I think that great doctors are defined not just by their brains and technical skill but also by their ability to enrol patients in their own recovery. Mr H certainly fits my great doctor criteria. His enthusiasm in turn encourages me to make every possible effort to get back to vibrant health.

Flossie arrives. It’s more of a morning fly-past than a visit. She lingers just long enough to knock back a caffè latte and drop off her latest gift to me - a sparkly silver bat-winged top with a V-neck. Now I can guess what you’re thinking: “That Flossie has finally lost the plot. Tipped right over the edge, so to speak. You're in the hospital, not auditioning for Saturday Night Fever.” I hear you. When I open the bag I have to look long and hard at the sparkly silver top and then remember to close my mouth. But wait a minute. The top is loose enough to wiggle into without too much trouble, the batwing sleeves are not too restricting, the V-neck exactly covers the neckline of my compression bra. Flossie is a genius. She has discovered the perfect post breast surgery attire.

When Nick arrives he helps me into the silver top and leggings. It’s really a smart look. Then I regard the two tubes protruding from my waistband with drainage bottles attached. “The whole outfit will really be let down by that Pret a Manger sandwich bag,” I observe. Nick shoots me a look of excited triumph and then produces a black crocodile Bruno Magli handbag. Nick has been through my wardrobe and picked it out himself. The two bottles fit perfectly inside.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Downside of Morphine

If you ask me, there’s a lot to be said for Morphine. Of course there is the very real risk that one may become addicted, lose one’s job, sell all one’s furniture, take to shoplifting, go to gaol and end up living under the railway arches at Charing Cross. But in the short term it’s great.

The immediate downside, of course, is constipation.

I just went to the loo for the first time this week. Oh dear. I press the nurse call button. Nurse Sarah pops in. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I seem to have blocked up the toilet.” Nurse Sarah marches into the bathroom. I hear the sound of flushing and then a shriek. She comes reeling out the door, shaking with laughter. “The pan has filled up to the brim with water.” I’m glad she thinks it’s funny.

Nurse Sarah exits and then returns a few minutes later wearing a plastic apron, gloves and goggles and armed with a stick. “Plumbing is one of my many skills,” she says, with pride.

A Short Walk, With Bottles

Nick bounces in as if nothing had ever happened. He sits on the bed and holds my hand. Nurse Tiziana enters. “Now you’re off the pump we can take out that central line.” “Right-o.” say I. The central line is a catheter that has been inserted into my jugular vein. It has about four or six different tubes and valves attached to it, all rattling and clunking against my throat.

Tiziana busies herself at the side of my neck, removing bandages, cutting a stitch. Finally, with a swift movement, she pulls out the central line and drops it in the yellow bin. Nick’s eyes seem to bulge and then his face goes a kind of grey-white colour. “All done” says Nurse Tiziana, applying a fresh dressing.

After she has left the room, Nick remains quiet and still for a few minutes. “Get us a cup of tea then.” I say. He looks at me, uncomprehending, "Did you see what she pulled out?" he asks. I shake my head. “It was this long,” he says, holding his hands about two feet apart.

Now that I’m no longer physically attached to life-preserving machinery I can get out of bed. I swing my legs over the side and then remember that there are two long tubes that are draining fluid from my back, where Mr H removed the muscle. Attached to the end of these tubes are two glass bottles. I press the call button and Nurse Tiziana pops in. “I want to go to the bathroom. What should I do about these bottles?” I ask. Nurse T pops out again. She comes back with a paper carrier bag from Pret a Manger.

I make a couple of practise runs around the perimeter of my room and a foray into the bathroom, with rests in between. Now I feel ready to up the ante. With my right hand I take Nick’s arm. In my left hand I take the Pret bag with drainage bottles. We open the bedroom door.

A fellow patient has collapsed right outside. Nurses and doctors are rushing about with oxygen and needles. We step over her. Waveringly, we walk the entire length of the corridor.

Love Lunatics

The last couple of days have become a bit confused in my mind, what with the emotional distress, the comings and goings of my friends, the many phone calls and the morphine.

I tried not to be upset but I did cry a lot on Tuesday. I’ve had to deal with the difficult business of telling friends and family the news about Nick and I breaking up whenever they phoned or visited. I've kept it in perspective. Compared with the magnitude of bad news that Mr Hadjiminas could have given me, and didn’t, Nick’s pronouncement seems less like a bombshell and more like an exploding paper bag in terms of shock value.

At the same time, and this may sound odd, I didn’t fully believe Nick. Not in the sense of ‘I don’t belieeeeeve it!’ but in the sense that what he said seemed inauthentic. His words and his actions did not match up. First of all, Nick has been genuinely committed to sticking with me as much as he possibly can. He had a cast iron excuse to leave the country when I was diagnosed with cancer. His son was in trouble and his ex-wife was pressuring him to go home. His mother has been ill for some time. He needed to get back to work. Instead, he extended his stay in London by another two weeks. He came to all the appointments with me, sat with me in the very distressing ITU and had been on call day and night, making me salads and driving my sister around. Nothing has been too much trouble. Second of all, he did not give me the old “it’s not me, it’s you” speech and then skedaddle to a safe distance. Rather he hung around in the hospital all day, looking like a kicked dog and enduring the frosty reactions of several of my friends. It became quite painful to watch. I felt relieved when he finally decided to go home (to my home).

Flossie and Iris arrived first thing on Wednesday morning. I checked their handbags for guns and ropes. We don’t want any lynchings around here. Flossie sat down looking grim. Iris stalked about the room, picking up heavy, blunt items and testing them out on the palm of her hand. Flossie, in her psychotherapist persona, explained to one and all the concepts of Love Addiction and Love Avoidance expounded by Pia Mellody and the origins of those compulsive behaviours in childhood trauma. As far as I have understood it, in my drug-addled state, this is the SP*:

  1. Some original childhood trauma (taking care of an alcoholic, pill-popping mother / being fiddled with by uncle Freddy / trying to be the peacemaker between warring parents / finding Daddy with his head in the oven and so forth) causes us to have an incomplete understanding of close, mutually supportive intimate relationships. This leads us in adult life to behave either as Love Addicts or Love Avoidants.
  2. The Love Addict is drawn to people who are emotionally or otherwise unavailable. They create a fantasy about the other person and fall in love with the fantasy, rather than the real person.
  3. The Love Avoidant enters a relationship out of a sense of duty. They soon become overwhelmed by the other person’s neediness (I imagine that having cancer could be classed as neediness) and engineer a situation that allows them to escape.
  4. A person can display traits of both the Love Addict and the Love Avoidant.**

“Hmmph,” I muttered, “so what does that say about me?”

When Nick walked through the door (yes, he came back, again) I swear I could feel sizzles of static electricity arcing across the room. Flossie took Nick out for a little walk. I imagine she wanted to set him straight on a few things.

Some other events happened yesterday. It’s all a bit of a jumble in my mind.

The nurses removed the compression bra and changed my dressings. I took the opportunity to have a proper look at the site of the surgery (that’s possibly a Love Avoidant way of saying ‘my breast’). Then I passed out cold. Cindy visited and made a very good job of being all matter of fact and pleasant to Nick. Pete visited with more flowers. He was less able to keep up a jolly front. He looked at his shoes a lot. Royston swooped by and bundled Nick off to a steak house for dinner, no doubt to set him straight on a few more things, but from a manly perspective. Nick came back to the hospital late at night and begged me to give him another chance. I said something along the lines of “let’s see how it goes.”

* Flossie – If I’ve got this all back-to-front, please feel free to put me straight. I will be a great help not only to me but also to all readers of Chemo Chic.

** If you have read this and then thought: ”that sounds very familiar to me and it’s been making my life a misery. What can I do about it?” You may do well to get in touch with S.L.A.A.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Don't Leave Me This Way

“We should think about taking you off that Morphine,” says nurse Sarah. “Would you prefer to do it now or in the morning?”

I mull it over. I have already come to terms with separation from a large part of my left breast. I have accepted being abandoned by Nick. I suppose I can take breaking up with Morphine in my stride.

“Do it now,” I say, with bravado.

Then I back pedal like mad. “But what will we do if I have pain in the night?” I wail. “Oh we can leave it to the morning if you like,” replies nurse Sarah. I feel like a malingering dope fiend. “No,” I say again, with finality, “do it now.”

Nurse Sarah scoots out of the room and then returns with a giant horse syringe. She holds it up. “This,” she says, “is Morphine.” She lays it in a little cardboard tray on my bedside cabinet. “It will be right here if you need it.”

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

My Boyfriend Broke Up With Me IN THE HOSPITAL

After dropping Miranda and Eloise at the Heathrow Express, Nick returns. He has made a big hit with Eloise. That pleases me no end.

There’s a mid-morning lull in hospitals. Mr Hadjiminas has made his early morning visit. The nurses have finished making one’s bed, taking one’s temperature, checking one’s chest drains and all that well meaning prodding and poking that they do. The breakfast shift visitors have departed for work or the airport. The lunch shift visitors are still at home brushing their teeth.

Nick and I settle down together for a nice cup of tea. We chat about the lovely times we’ve shared. We chat about the craziness of the past ten days. About how wonderful it is that we have had so much fun because, hey, one’s life can change completely in any moment. Then, at last, we can no longer avoid the subject that is pulling on our coat sleeves, nagging at our consciousness like a nascent toothache. Nick is returning to Australia in a week’s time. We don’t know when we will see one another again. I had planned to go to Sydney this autumn. That won’t be possible now, if I’m to have a course of chemotherapy.

“How do you feel about that, baby?” I ask.

Nick looks at me and his face goes all weird, like he’s trying on different expressions, unsure of which one will be suitable for the occasion. He takes my hand in his.

Then Nick looks me in the face and says, “I think we should agree to see other people.” I stare at him. For a long time.

“So are you saying that you’d like me to go out with someone else?” I finally ask. “Because I can do that if you like. But just to be clear, if I do go out with someone else then I will be going out with him – not with you.”

Nick shakes his head and looks at the floor. “I don’t think I can be faithful to you Lily,” says Nick. My mind goes blank. Eventually I say the only thing that occurs to me, “Nick, you’re an idiot.”

Monday, 8 June 2009

Belt and Braces

Now that I’m all spruced up in my new compression bra and all juiced up on Morphine, I’m ready to entertain. And it’s just as well.

Flossie is already on the scene. Next through the door are my sister Miranda, my boyfriend Nick and my niece Eloise. Miranda and Nick have been buying up West London’s organic vegetable stockpile and juicing for Britain. It seems that they each have firm, yet distinct ideas about how juicing should be done. I take delivery of two flasks of juice. Eloise is excited to the point of collywobbles because today she is going to meet her cousin Amazon-Rainforest for the first time. They are both from one-child families. Eloise lives in Moscow and Australia and Amazon-Rainforest lives in Goa and the UK. I’ve been trying to engineer their meeting for a very long time. I’m truly delighted that it’s going to happen at last, even if it’s taken me getting breast cancer to bring it about.

Ben arrives with Amazon-Rainforest. She and Eloise take one look at each other and fall instantly in love. "Being cousins isn't funny," announces Eloise, "so why are we laughing?" Collapsing in giggles, they skip into the bathroom where Eloise shows A-R how to put dolls to bed in the bath.

Jamie and Iris arrive. They have agreed to take the little girls to Regent’s Park to play with Chilli and Hugo, the Chihuahuas. Off they all go.

Next in is Jean-Claude, Miranda’s husband. He has just flown from Barcelona, where he lives and works. I can tell that you’re beginning to suspect that my family and friends have some pretty complicated living arrangements.

Let me take a moment to fill you in. I am Australian but I live in London. My boyfriend Nick lives in Sydney. My sister Miranda is a diplomat. At the moment she and Eloise live in Moscow. Miranda's husband Jean-Claude is French. He is an advertising man and he lives and works in Barcelona. Jean-Claude is not Eloise’s father. Eloise spends her holidays in Adelaide with her father and his partner and two older daughters. When she's not in Adelaide Eloise visits our mother in Tasmania. Our mother moved from Sydney to Tasmania a couple of decades ago. My cousin Ben is a film producer. When Ben and his wife Sayeeda separated, Sayeeda moved to Goa in India. When Ben is not working he spends his time in Goa with his daughter Amazon-rainforest. Jamie and Iris are not a couple. Jamie lives at the Penthouse flat, Mayhem Mansions, Marylebone in a homosexual ménage à trois with Ted and Muttiah. Iris spends a lot of time at Mayhem Mansions for two reasons: 1. She and Jamie are both Chihuahua owners and 2. Ted cooks a lot of pies. You get the picture?

Antony arrives, with more flowers. Flossie pops out to the shops and returns with yet another gift for me – an Aveda face spray. I thank her and, to show just how useful this gift is, spritz my face.

On the wall by the door is a Perspex leaflet holder containing an A4 laminated card with graphic illustrations of the surgical procedure that I have recently undergone: the latissimus dorsi flap. If there is ever a lull in the conversation, Nick takes the opportunity to pass around the card saying "Look, this is what Lily had done." Most people, like me, cannot bear to look.

The park gang return. Eloise has fallen over and grazed her knee and by all accounts created so much hullaballoo that Jamie and Iris felt obliged to return her to her mother. The girls switch the TV on and settle down to watch Kung-Fu Panda, my new favourite movie. Miranda and Antony try giving me amateur reflexolgy. They work on one foot apiece, “to help you relax.”

It’s standing room only when the door opens and Mr Hadjiminas enters the scene. The look on his face turns from stunned to confused but nurse Anne quickly bustles in behind him. “Right-o,” she says, “everybody out.”

The gang traipse off to continue their party on the staircase or in the lift or somewhere. Mr H regains his composure and takes a seat. “We’ve got the lab report on the remainder of your lymph nodes,” he says, “they were all clear.” Suddenly I exhale and it feels as if I’ve been holding my breath for a week. “That’s great news, thank you,” I sigh, “so I won’t need chemotherapy?” “I’m afraid I will still be recommending chemotherapy,” replies Mr H. “But you got all the cancer out,” I rejoin. “Well,” says Mr Hadjiminas, “if there is any spread to the lymph system at all, then there is always a possibility, however slight, that it may have spread elsewhere in your body. We simply have no way to know. So the chemotherapy is precautionary. It’s sort of a belt and braces approach." “I see,” say I, “well I’ll have to think about it. I’ll let you know when I've made a decision.” Mr H gives me an ever so slightly exasperated glance.

A Strange Contraption

Mr Hadjiminas arrives bright and early, Nurse Honoria trailing in his wake. He gives my torso the expert once over and mumbles to Honoria “36C.”* Honoria buzzes out of the room. Mr H changes all my bandages and by the time he’s done that, Nurse Honoria is back with a device that looks like a cross between a sports bra and a straitjacket.

“This,” says Mr Hadjiminas, “is a compression bra.” He and Honoria carefully manoeuvre the contraption around my ribcage. They engage the huge zipper in the front and then fasten the thick Velcro shoulder straps securely in place. The compression bra is completely seamless and made out of a thick but soft stretchy fabric. It hugs me firmly right down to the bottom of my rib cage. For something that looks so formidable it is remarkably comfortable.

When Flossie arrives I’m sitting up in bed proudly showing off my new, very white, compression bra. “Oh,” gasps Flossie, “I want one of those!” “Think about it Flossie,” I say, “you really don’t.”

* Before they fitted the compression bra I pointed out to Mr Hadjiminas that I am actually a size 36A. “Oh this will fit,” he said, “the surgery will have caused a lot of swelling.” He was right. He always is. On the same subject: when Iris heard that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer she is reported to have said “What do you mean Lily has breast cancer? She doesn’t have breasts.”

Sunday, 7 June 2009

How to Decorate Your Hospital Room

The door to my room opens and my eyes are filled with a vision of sunshine and beautiful flowers. There’s a gorgeous bunch of pink peonies and roses with a card from Nick, an extremely elegant arrangement of white peonies, roses and cow parsley from Cindy, a huge explosion of deep crimson long stemmed roses from Flossie.

Miranda, Nick, Eloise and Flossie are also in the room.

The nurses slide me onto the bed, plump up my pillows and hook my jugular vein up to the morphine dispenser. “Just press the button whenever you need it.” I press it immediately.

Miranda and Nick have stocked the fridge with fresh green juice (fennel and something?) and my favourite healthy sprout salad.

Iris and Jamie arrive with more flowers. There is a carnival atmosphere in the room. Everyone is chatting and ordering up cups of tea from the catering lady. Eloise pumps fistfulls of alcohol sanitising gel from the bottle at the foot of my bed and smears it all over the floor. She then begins scrubbing it all around with paper towels. Once the floor is awash with the stuff she pumps out several more big gloops and starts in on sanitising the doors. "Eloise," says Miranda sharply, "enough of that alcohol gel." "But, mummy," replies Eloise plaintively, "I love the smell." Flossie shoots me a knowing and slightly worried glance.

Jamie fetches some Blu-tack and sticks all my cards up on the wall. Eloise falls asleep so Miranda obtains pillows and blankets from the nurses and puts her to bed in the bath. Iris and Flossie buzz down to Marylebone High Street and return with a clock shaped like a gigantic pocket-watch. They hang the clock on the wall. It wouldn’t look out of place at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. In fact the whole event could be the most surreal and best party I’ve ever hosted. Beneath this avalanche of love and flowers and drugs I feel as though I’ve won the lottery.

Major Surgery

Yesterday I had the axillary clearance and LD flap reconstruction. What that means is that they took out all the lymph nodes from under my arm and then re-built my breast using a muscle from my back.

You probably didn’t want to know that much. I know I don’t.

Nick and I checked into the Harley Street Clinic at 2 p.m. I felt familiar with the drill by now. Don the gown and paper pants, roll up the pressure stockings, fill in the menu cards, on with the telly, order tea for Nick.

Nurse Ann came to take my obs and swabs. Nick’s tea arrived and I handed the menu cards to the housekeeping lady. “I don’t think you’ll be needing those,” said nurse Ann, “you’ll be spending the night on ITU.”

Mr Hadjiminas arrived with his black felt-tip pen. After he had drawn the big arrow and X marks the spot I asked, casually, “the nurse said I’m going to ITU, that’s not right is it?” “Oh yes, he replied, “It’s quite a big procedure. You’ll be in theatre for about five hours.” That shook me up. I looked him in the eye, “Mr Hadjiminas,” I said, “I know that you’re going to do your finest work. I just want you to know that I intend to be the next cover girl on that photo album of yours.”


When I came round Nick was smiling at me. “Hey honey,” he said. “Hey honey,” said I. Sometimes that is enough.


Nick left to collect my sister Miranda and my six-year-old niece Eloise from the Heathrow Express at Paddington. Miranda was flying in from Moscow where she works as a diplomat. A most wonderful, kind and funny nurse, Caroline, took care of me whilst he was gone. “You have a good attitude,” she said, “You should recover well.” “Do some people have a bad attitude?” I asked her, “You bet they do,” she replied, “some people just moan and complain and feel sorry for themselves.” I wondered about that. I was so happy simply to be alive. What with that and the free morphine, moaning seemed a bit surplus to requirements.

It must have been late, maybe near midnight when the gang got back. I was overjoyed to see Miranda and Eloise’s faces. If they found the situation upsetting they didn’t show it. Miranda positively beamed at me. Eloise climbed up onto my bed, ignoring the mass of tubes and wires. “I made you a card aunty Lily.” On the front was a pink garden full of hearts and flowers. Diamonds glittered in the sky. Inside was an inscription: “Dere Leely I hope that you are not filing to sick. I woil be siying you agen. we wel visit you. and you get to play A game of Spot the difrins.” On the facing page was a drawing of two cats, wearing pink dresses. One cat had a bow in its hair, the other did not. One cat was wearing pink slippers whilst the other cat’s slippers were red. There were several other observable variations. So at one a.m. Eloise and I sat up in bed in the intensive care unit playing ‘Spot the difrins’. That was one of the high points of my life so far.

Friday, 5 June 2009


We’re in the car on the way to the hospital to see Mr Hadjiminas for my pathology results. Nick pipes up. “I just thought of something honey. You should make a will.”

I chew on my nails with renewed vigour. But he is right. I don’t have anything like that: a will; a pension; an ISA; sickness cover; life insurance; stocks and shares. What are you on about?

“I will put that on the list of things to do,” I mutter, perhaps with a slightly curt tone of voice.

“Well the good news,” says Mr Hadjimainas, looking at a computer printout “is the margins are clear.” That is good news indeed. I already know what it means. Mr H can now go ahead and perform reconstructive surgery. I won’t be requiring a mastectomy!

But I’ve also grown wise to his good news / bad news routine. There is something more to come. I can tell. Mr H looks at his fingers and then at me. “I’m afraid we found cancer in the sentinel node.” My mouth opens and closes. I’m not sure that I actually say anything. “It’s only in one node. Two others have what we call micrometastases, just a few cells, and the other one was clear. It’s unlikely to have spread any further. But we’ll have to take out all the other lymph nodes under your arm just to be sure.”

“And it will mean you’ll have to have chemotherapy.” Mr H gives me a look as if to say: “and please don’t argue with me on this one.”

It Slooshes When I Walk

Nick gives me a cuddle. I turn over to snuggle up to him and I hear it: a kind of sloshing, like water inside a bucket, but muted. ‘Shh,’ I say. “Can you hear that?” “Hear what?” says Nick. “It’s a slooshing sound. It’s coming from inside me,” I whisper. “I think you’re imagining that darling,” says Nick.

Nick brings me a cup of tea. If there is one thing in the world that is guaranteed to make me feel loved it is being brought tea in bed. I sit up to accept the cup. “There it is again,” I say. “I can’t hear anything,” says Nick. “It’s coming from my breast,” I say. I’m quite alarmed now. Nick looks at me, wondering how far to indulge this anxiety. “It must be your stomach,” he says. I’ll get you some breakfast.

After breakfast in bed I finally haul myself up and into the bathroom. As I walk down the corridor the sound is more pronounced. “There!” I gasp in horror. “You know, maybe there is something,” says Nick. I phone the hospital immediately and get through to Honoria, the breast care nurse.

“I was just about to call you,” she says, “how are you getting along?” “It slooshes when I walk!” I squeak, realising how mad that sounds. “Oh, that’s quite normal,” she replies, “it’s fluid build-up in your breast.”

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Mixed Sprout Salad

Everything should be organic, if you can get it.

A bag of mixed sprouts

Small amounts of various crunchy vegetables: fennel; celery; radish; red pepper

An apple

Coriander leaves

Juice of half a lime (or a whole one if the lime isn’t very juicy)

Shoyu soya sauce

Udo’s oil (or good quality olive oil)

Put the sprouts in a big bowl and add the lime juice and a generous amount of shoyu (about a dessertspoon). Stir it all around to marinate.

Chop up the crunchy vegetable and the apple into small cubes, about the size of a chick pea. Mix them into the salad.

Just before serving add the oil and chopped coriander leaves.

First Surgery

I had surgery yesterday

At 2.30 Nick and I arrived at the Harley Street Clinic. It is actually a whole bunch of Georgian Houses in Harley Street with the main hospital in Weymouth Street. A lot of the Georgian Houses seem to be connected by underground tunnels.

First, we went to see Mr Hadjiminas. Mr H injected me with some kind of tracer that will show him the way to the sentinel lymph node. I am learning lots of things in a very short time... We all have a series of lymph nodes under our arms. One of their jobs is to catch and filter out nasties from the lymph. The very first one that drains from one’s breast is called the sentinel node.

The latest fashion amongst breast surgeons is to remove the sentinel node and examine it to see if it contains any cancer cells. If the sentinel node is clear, then the cancer is unlikely to have spread any further. Hence it will not be necessary to remove all the other lymph nodes. And if the cancer has not spread, there is no need for chemotherapy.

Next, we went down into the labyrinthine basement for an ultrasound scan. I changed into the standard issue blue patterned back fastening robe and gown monogrammed with HSC. Fabulous with a pair of Marc Jacobs pumps. I guess they monogram the gowns so that, if one absent-mindedly wanders off into the West End, the staff at Selfridges will know where to return one to.

As we sat in the tiny waiting area we heard a most distressing wailing and crying coming from the ultrasound room. Nick and I looked at each other in alarm. Then a young woman and her husband appeared. She was clearly about eight months pregnant and her eyes were wet with tears. She sat down and stared at the floor whilst her husband held her hand. I was horrified to even imagine what terrible news they had just received. I wanted to say something or to give her a hug but it felt too intrusive. I tried some empathetic glances but could not catch her eye. We all sat silently in the tiny waiting area together, then my name was called.

Another jolly female doctor applied the goo and then the scanner head, searching for my sentinel node. We pointedly avoided mentioning the previous occupant of the couch. By way of making conversation the doctor asked me who my surgeon is, although the answer was right there in my notes. “Mr Hadjiminas” I replied. “You’re lucky” she said. “If I had to have breast surgery I would definitely want him to do it.” I can’t tell you how comforted I was by that remark.

Scan done, I dressed and we were shown through the subterranean corridors to a lift. It brought us out into the main hospital reception area. I booked in and we sat down to await a porter. My mind returned to the pregnant lady. No matter what one is facing, there is always somebody worse off. “Did you happen to find out what was the matter with that poor lady?” I asked Nick. “Oh yes,” he replied in a cheerful tone, “she just found out she is having a baby. She had thought that she had a growth in her stomach. She was crying and wailing with joy.”

The porter escorted us upstairs to a room. This was unlike any hospital room I had ever previously experienced. It was sunny and light with big windows. On the bed were slippers, a pair of paper knickers, a robe and a pair of pressure stockings. There were menu cards to be filled in. The bathroom was stocked with white towels and mini toiletries. It was like a very clean hotel room. And there was only one occupant – me!

Exploring the room and changing into the kit helped to keep my mind occupied. We ordered tea for Nick and switched the telly on. A nurse came in to do my observations. She swabbed my nostrils to test for MRSA. It is the policy of this hospital to test everyone on admission. If they find the super-bug up one’s nose they will either defer one’s admission or, if that is not possible, treat one in an isolation unit. Why don’t all hospitals do this?

Before we knew it, Mr Hadjiminas had arrived. One thing I’ve noticed about Mr H is that he loves getting me to take my top off. I stripped to the waist. Mr H produced a big black felt-tip pen and marked a circle on my left breast around the area where the MRI scan had shown the tumours to be. Then he drew a huge black arrow from my shoulder pointing to my breast. I looked at him quizzically. “They won’t let you into theatre without that” he said. It may have looked comical but I was greatly reassured by the thoroughness of the procedures here.

Soon, a very professional theatre nurse came to take me ‘downstairs.’ We waved goodbye to Nick as the lift doors close. I was trying to be all light hearted and cheerful but I felt sick. Then we were back in the underground corridors. As I walked with the nurse in my gown and slippers scenes of final walks in those death row movies came to mind. The Green Mile for example. Except, I reminded myself, this was a walk to save my life.